Alfred Lawson, Juvenile Delinquent?

Between 2009 and 2011, I maintained a TypePad blog, “More Fiends,” intended to update my book Baseball Fiends and Flying Machines. Those posts can still be found in the Wayback Machine, but I stopped updating that site in 2011. Because this WordPress site promotes and updates all my books, I’d like to republish some of those earlier posts.]

Posted 4/28/2010:

Proquest has digitized the Detroit Free Press run from 1831-1922, and while it misses the Direct Credits Society years, it does span the dozen or so years that the Lawson clan lived in the city, 1872-circa 1885. No mention of Robert Henry Lawson, other than a short note that he once fell down near the Russell Hotel and sliced off part of his nose. No mention of George Lawson at all, which was a disappointment to me. Two articles about Colin T. Lawson–which I’ll mention in a future post. One mention of Robert, Jr., who while living across the river in Windsor, ran up some debts to merchants and had some furniture seized by the bailiff. And then there was this one little gem from April 30, 1882:

Here’s a little background on the reform school from the Lansing State Journal:

“LANSING — Michigan’s Legislature appropriated money to build a “house of correction for juvenile offenders” in 1855 and passed an act establishing the Michigan State Reform School. Lansing citizens donated 30 acres of land about a mile from the Capitol, which was supplemented by 195 acres purchased by the state.  The institution was built on North Pennsylvania Avenue and called the Industrial School for Boys.

Located in the area bordered approximately by Pennsylvania Avenue, Saginaw Street, Marshall Street and Jerome Street, the school took in troubled youth with criminal histories. The first student was enrolled Sept. 2, 1856. Enrollment a year later totaled 54 boys and 8 girls. After the 8th girl, it was decided to exclude young women for “obvious reasons.” Originally the boys did farm labor in addition to their class work. Gradually the curriculum was changed to vocational guidance courses with classes in baking, hand weaving, shoe making, printing, carpentry, painting and other trades. Over the years, the school was also known as the Michigan State Reform School, Boys Vocational School and several other variants. The final name was the Boys Training School.”

So the Alfred Lawson who was sent to reform school in 1882 had to have been between 10-16 years of age. Alfred W. Lawson had just turned 13. The 1880 census has no other Alfred Lawsons of that age in Detroit. Moreover, in the play Childhood Days of Alfred Lawson, scene 4 has the young Alf Lawson talking with his best pal, Arthur.

The timeline of Lawson’s teen years is not clear. In that same play script, it mentions that between 12-17, Alf worked as a bellboy, coat-maker, farm-hand, blacksmith’s assistant, carpet weaver, and salesman. In the book Children, Lawson states: “The mother of Alfred Lawson persuaded him to go to an industrial school to learn a trade when he was about thirteen years of age. While there he learned to make coats and design clothing. He left school for about a year between times but returned when about sixteen and completed the trade when about seventeen years of age.”

I believe Lawson’s account of his teen years is vague enough to allow a stay of 1-2 years in reform school.

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